I don't know about you guys, but I know growing up as a West Indian/Trinidadian child, expressing big emotions like disappointment, frustration, discontentment or disagreement was never something that was viewed lightly.
It would be frequently relabelled as ungrateful, spoilt, or unmannerly behavior.
Naturally, we would have encountered multiple different circumstances as children where things would not have gone as we would have hoped or liked, or been in instances where we were upset - but being children meant those emotions like anger, frustration or disappointment had no place.
We would have been promptly discouraged and instead scolded to smile or be appreciative, and while I understand why our parents and family members placed so much importance on image and showing gratitude or general contentment, I also cannot neglect the emotional disadvantage we were put at.
Our parents or guardians - doing what they thought was the right and proper thing - would have buffed us and I can't even count the times we were told:
- Why are you crying? This is nothing to cry about.
- Why are you being ungrateful?
- You’re a big boy/girl and big boys/girls don't cry
- Stop being dramatic
- You are fine.
I can go on.
Making space for big emotions in kids
The problem with these statements is that they leads kids (and later on, adults) to believe that these emotions and reactions are unacceptable, when the truth is they’re anything but.
Instead, we should focus on using those instances to teach our kids how to process and work through difficult emotions like anger and disappointment, and to give them the appropriate language to express themselves when they are experiencing those feelings.
I have mentioned this in a couple of my previous articles and at the expense of sounding like a broken record: “ There are NO bad feelings, there are just feelings and emotions - not good or bad.”
We should not punish our children or ourselves for that matter when experiencing normal reactions to life.
Shaping emotionally-prepared adults
The pro of allowing our children to express and make room for their disappointment, anger or frustration are that they become a more emotionally-prepared and settled child and adult.
Now, don't get me wrong; this isn't a magic wand effect where they will suddenly only reply “appropriately”.
But you can rest assured that they now have the tools and skills to better deal with upsetting situations.
You then get kids and adults who are not massively thrown off by sudden changes and challenges, and who can adapt a bit quicker.
How can you begin to guide and create space for those emotions in your kids and in yourself ?
I try these two tips which genuinely help in putting myself in the frame of mind to create space for my daughter.
- Soft listening ears: Many of us as parents don’t often listen to our kids and when we do, it's more that we listen to respond and not understand. Listening with soft ears is aiming to not only hear what I want to hear, but to understand where she may be coming from. And if I can't then I try to let it wash over like water and imagine an instance where I may have felt the way she is currently feeling.
- Gentle but firm guidance/talk through: Here I may try to help her and I identify the emotions and the feeling and sometimes I take the focus off of her and onto myself with phrases like “ Well when I feel this way, I try and do X" or "Yes this is sad/disappointing/upsetting and it does not feel good, but it will pass like a wave."
I hope these help!
Navigating the difficult times
I will say as a little disclaimer that allowing disagreement in our parent-child relationships can be more difficult. It was and still is difficult for me to not see it as rudeness and just as my child communicating with me.
It takes humility and introspection to not be triggered into saying decades-old statements that our parents used with us.
It takes some breathing and re-learning of self expression and communication as it relates to children.
So, go brave with a soft heart and soft ears and the utmost kindness to yourself and your child and you’ll (hopefully) be rewarded a couple years later when you’ll sit back and say: “Ah yes it wasn’t in vain.”